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A linguistic tour of a 'night out' around the world
And how to tell if it's a Canadian or an Australian asking you out
 
Use your keen ear to decipher where Romeo hails from.
Use your keen ear to decipher where Romeo hails from. Thinkstock/iStockphoto

Imagine that someone you've never met before walks up to you and asks you to join him or her for a night out. You're interested, but you're also wondering: Where is this person from? And, more to the point, what if he or she is Canadian?

Well, you're in luck. The sounds in the words night out are among the best ways of identifying a Canadian accent.

You may be thinking, "Oh, I've got this one! Out is 'oot'!" Well, sorry, no. If the person says "oot" there's more chance that he or she has arrived via time machine from a thousand years ago. You see, back then, the words night and out — spelled niht and ut — were said more like "neet" and "oot." But about halfway between then and now, English's "long" vowels changed, so that, among other things, those "neet" and "oot" sounds, which were just steady high in the mouth, became diphthongs, swooping up from near the middle of the mouth to finish in or near the high spot. (Listen to these sounds in the video below.)

Why would the sounds change? Because language sounds always do, just like seashores and river courses — they just change more sometimes and in some places. But look at how much they've changed from that original sound in different places around the world. The way you say night out sounds very different depending on what part of what country you're from, because the sounds moved in different directions. It's not just the vowels — the "t" sounds are different too.

The usual way many people think of saying night out is with vowels that start in the low central part of the mouth and rise to mid-high front for night and mid-high back for out. Canadians do a thing linguists call "Canadian raising": If those diphthongs are before voiceless consonants, they start a little higher in the mouth. Ask a Canadian to say eyes and ice and you'll probably hear a difference: The first part of ice closer to "uh" than to "ah." And, for people from some parts of Canada, ask for out loud and you'll also hear a difference — the first one starts higher, again like "uh" rather than "ah." But it's still not as high as "oot" — it's just high enough that most Americans would be trying to say oot if they made that sound.

The Canadian will also probably not say the t as real "t" sound, either. The one in the middle will be flapped to sound more like a "d," and the one at the end will just be a glottal stop: The breath stops, but the tongue tip doesn't touch.

But while those sounds were moving (or staying) a little above the bottom in Canada, they were moving in different directions in other places. Have a look at the different places you can have a night out around the world, and have a listen to the different sounds in the video at the bottom of this article.

More towards the back
In some southeastern British accents, the night vowel starts farther back, while the out vowel starts in the center. The t's can become glottal stops, which is famously associated with a Cockney accent. In a more "proper" British accent, the diphthongs start closer to the center, and the t's are crisp.

More towards the front
In some southern U.S. accents, the night vowel stays in the center of the mouth, often not moving up at all, while the out vowel starts near the front, and may rise only halfway up at the end. The t's may not be too crisp.

Heading in both directions
Depending on how "strong" an Australian's accent is, the night vowel can start pretty far back in the mouth, almost like an "aw," and the out vowel can start quite far forwards — and sometimes it doesn't move up but just leaves out sounding like at. The t's are about the same as the Canadians say them.

All up in front
Some Scottish accents push all the vowel sounds in these two words right up to the front, and not lower than the middle of the mouth: The starts of the diphthongs not much farther back than the vowel in met, and the end of the out diphthong right up where the end of the night one is, except with the lips rounded. The t's are likely glottal stops.

Strong on the finish
While Australian and southern U.S. accents may nearly drop the ends of the diphthongs altogether, some Welsh accents make them higher and tighter and hold them a little longer, while starting the diphthongs near the center of the mouth.

Central but softly crisp
The vowel sounds of night out in many Irish accents start in the center, or just slightly ahead of it, but the t's are crisp and breathy and sometimes soften nearly to a "s" sound.

Inoffensively holding the middle ground
And then, of course, there's the Canadian accent, already discussed. There's actually more than one Canadian accent, but there's a lot less dialectal variety in Canada than there is in the U.S., let alone England.

There are, of course, many more accents in the world than just these few. And the signal sounds that will help you tell them apart will vary. For instance, if you want to know whether someone is from New Zealand, you may get a clue if they say seven fish, which, for some New Zealanders, will sound like "seeven fush" to you. Many Scots, regardless of how they say out, will say town like "toon." But even if this stranger isn't asking you to join them in eating seven fish downtown, as long as they say night out you will have a clue as to whether they're Canadian. And that's what's important.

An excellent place to get to know the many dialects of English in the world is the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA), which has recordings of samples from around the world.

Listen to the different sounds described above in this video:

 
James Harbeck is a professional word taster and sentence sommelier (an editor trained in linguistics). He is the author of the blog Sesquiotica and the book Songs of Love and Grammar.

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